In January 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 218 (AB 218) into law. This law is also known as the California Child Victims Act. One of the provisions of the law is a three-year “look back” window. This allows child sex abuse survivors of any age to file a legal claim, regardless of when the abuse took place. The window opened on January 1, 2020 and closes December 30, 2022.
In January 2021, Catholic bishops in California filed motions to challenge AB 218, with arguments specifically against the legal “look back” window. The motions filed in California superior courts ask the judges to rule AB 218 unconstitutional.
Attorneys for the California bishops also challenged part of the law that would require organizations that concealed abuse to pay triple damages. Triple damages are commonly referred to as treble damages in the legal justice system. In April 2019, an Alameda County judge ruled against the bishops’ case.
A Look At The California Child Victims Act
The California Child Victims Act went into effect on January 1, 2020. The law provides childhood sex abuse victims new legal opportunities by amending the previous law. Specifically, the California Child Victims Act:
- Expands the maximum age at which a person can file a civil sexual assault claim to 40 years old. Previously, sexual assault survivors had to file a claim before they turned 26 years old. Otherwise, they would lose their right to sue.
- Allows victims to recover treble (triple) damages in instances where abuse resulted from the efforts to cover up previous abuse.
- Opened a three-year “look back” window for persons of any age to file a civil claim. During this three-year period, no civil lawsuit is barred by the state’s statute of limitations.
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California Bishops File Motions Against AB 218
Although the “look back” window has been open for a little over one year, California bishops are now challenging AB 218 as unconstitutional. Motions were filed in southern and northern California superior courts. The motions challenging the law were filed on behalf of the bishops in nine California dioceses.
In the filed motions, the bishops specifically challenge the “look back” window that’s open until December 30, 2022.
Bishops Argue Law Revives Expired Clergy Abuse Claims
In 2002, California created a one-year “look back” window for childhood sexual abuse. This legislation resulted in hundreds of claims against the Catholic Church. During this revival window, the Catholic Church paid more than $1.2 billion to settle clergy sexual abuse claims.
In their filings, California bishops argue AB 218 renews “long-expired” claims that were already revived during this previous “look back” window. Further, the bishops allege “the Legislature had no evidence of widespread abuse after 2003 and no evidence of cover-up.”
The bishops assert the amount of time that has passed for these potential claims could make it challenging for defendants to gather evidence. Witnesses may have passed away and documentation may be lost.
The motions also stated the bishops have “great remorse for crimes committed against victims” and have made reforms to their internal policies.
Bishops Argue Triple Damages Provision Is Unconstitutional
Attorneys for the California bishops also argued against the triple damages provision of AB 218. According to the new law, survivors may be able to receive triple damages from organizations that concealed abuse allegations.
Many Catholic dioceses across the country have been accused of hiding priest abuse from law enforcement and the public. The actions of these dioceses protected predators and endangered future victims.
The California bishops argued the triple damages provision is unconstitutional. Attorneys for the bishops claim the law imposes a new punishment that was not in place when the crime occurred.
On April 29, 2021, Alameda Superior Court Judge Winifred Y. Smith reviewed the challenge. She found the law to be constitutional as written.
AB 218 Gives Sex Abuse Victims Opportunity For Justice
AB 218 allows survivors of childhood sexual abuse in California the opportunity to seek justice.
Researchers have found it can take months or years for victims to disclose their abuse. As a result, some survivors may find their opportunity to file a claim has expired.
Provisions under AB 218, such as the open “look back” window, provide an opportunity for victims with previously expired claims to seek justice against the Catholic Church and other responsible institutions.
The bishops’ motions to rule AB 218 unconstitutional could impact hundreds of survivors. The motions in California courts are expected to be decided on in the coming months.
AB 218, Chapter 861 (California 2019).
Hamilton, M. (2007, July 19). A ‘window’ for victims of abuse. Los Angeles Times.
Jablon, R. (2021, January 29). California bishops fighting 2019 clergy sex abuse law. The Associated Press.
Nguyen, C., Bott, M. (2021, February 18). 600 Sex Abuse Lawsuits Expected to Hit Northern CA Dioceses in New Window for Accusers. NBC.
Saunders, J.H. (2021, May 23). California Judge in Catholic Clergy Cases Upholds Triple Damages for Cover Up. Legal Examiner.